In an era when university press officers respond to WhatsApp enquiries from the other side of the world within seconds, it is strange to recall that as recently as the 1980s it was routine for requested photos to be posted to journalists with a self-addressed envelope, so that they could be returned and reused.
In recent years, Twitter, Skype and The Conversation have had a particularly transformational effect on the way press offices work. These new global digital platforms have in effect created a way for academics to become journalists in their own right, calling on their knowledge and research to offer topical comment on all manner of issues.
The internet has also played a broader role in stoking demand from mainstream media outlets for academic comment and content. By attracting large chunks of marketing budgets previously spent on display advertising in newspapers, it has precipitated the laying off of many career print journalists. This has left media organisations more reliant than ever on external contributors and syndicated features.
Academics, of course, have long been a natural source of authoritative comment for the media, but another huge change is that broadcasters no longer have to rely on professors at the university down the road. Thanks to remote video technology, they can now take their pick of eminent experts from thousands of universities across the globe.
Dealing with requests for comment on everything from party politics and terrorism to human breast milk ice cream (no luck there, I’m afraid) has become a big part of modern press officers’ lives. Office hours have gone out the window, with bookings coming in for breakfast shows not just in the UK but also in Australia – the sheer volume of airtime and a desire to avoid repetition have put increased pressure on producers to book a diverse range of guests who are both perspicacious and engaging.
From the perspective of news and media outlets, a university is like a bureau with hundreds of passionate, engaged experts across myriad specialisms. On any given day, news may break that a university press officer can source an academic to comment on. Then – if the stars align – within hours that colleague may have broadcast his or her thoughts to millions, written comment that is read globally and sparked thousands of social media shares.
Understandably, this new global, digital media world can take some getting used to for those academics being asked to go on television on the other side of the world after tucking the kids into bed. (Always do that first if you don’t want them bursting into your office while you are live on BBC World News!) Indeed, one of the main challenges for a modern press officer is to help their academic colleagues understand and embrace this new reality. And there’s still all that new research to be communicated: the cornerstone of every university press office.
Academics' reluctance is understandable. Apart from the often antisocial hours, broadcasters can sometimes have preconceptions about the sort of comment that they want (headline-grabbing; dare I say sensationalist), which scholars may, quite rightly, be wary about giving. And there is no denying that media work requires time and effort. There must also be an appreciation by university management of the additional work and skills now required for academics to engage with the media in this age of rolling news – perhaps there is even a case for time to be officially set aside for it. But those who choose to opt out of the new media world may soon find that they don’t carry as much clout as they once did. There is more competition than ever to get into journalists’ contact books. There are experts on everything, in every time zone, and many are keen to make a name for themselves beyond the halls of academe.
Those academics who can find sensible links between world events and their expertise – not necessarily specific papers but knowledge amassed over entire careers – will find a growing audience for their voices. They will be able to raise the profile of both their research and their institution to an extent that money can’t buy, and in a way that smaller universities could previously only dream of.
Russell Reader is head of communications at Keele University.